Food at Work


Ethiopia is going through an impressive transformation indeed and one of the pillars supporting the economic development of the country is the construction of nine industrial parks. These parks will not only enhance production but will provide jobs for thousands of workers. Many of them will be young people, including expecting and nursing mothers. For workers to be productive they need to be fit. At the same time, we know that many of them suffer from anaemia or other micronutrient deficiencies. There seems to be a big opportunity thus to address undernutrition especially in the light of economic development and enhanced production in the private sector in general and in the industrial parks particularly. In his book “Food at Work”, Christhopher Wanjek takes a comprehensive look at the opportunities to increase the nutrition status of employees at their place of work. Below follow some excerpts from the introduction of the book.
“This book addresses a simple question – how do workers eat while at work? This question, we have found, is not always given much thought. This is strange, as food is the fuel that powers production. One would think that employers, wanting to maximize productivity, would provide their workforce
with nourishing food or, at the very least, convenient access to healthy food. What we have found in researching material for this book is that workplace meal programmes are largely a missed opportunity. It is a salient fact that worldwide nearly a billion people are undernourished while over one billion are overweight. How do we address this catastrophic misappropriation of food resources? The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), among other international bodies, have taken great steps in remedying malnutrition through projects focused on better food supply chains, storage, land management, food fortification, bulk food distribution and education. Our view, in assisting this global aim, is that the workplace
should be a locale for meal provision and nutrition education initiatives.
Too often the workplace meal programme is either an afterthought or not even considered by employers. Work, instead of being accommodating, is frequently a hindrance to proper nutrition. Canteens, if they exist, routinely offer an unhealthy and unvaried selection. Vending machines are regularly stocked with unhealthy snacks. Local restaurants can be expensive or in short supply. Street foods can be bacteria laden. Workers sometimes have no time to eat, no place to eat or no money to purchase food. Some workers are unable to consume enough calories to perform the strenuous work expected of them.
Agricultural and construction workers often eat in dangerous and insanitary conditions. Mobile workers and day labourers are expected to fend for themselves. Migrant workers, far from home, often find themselves with no access to local markets and no means to store or cook food. Night shift workers find they have few meal options after hours. Hundreds of millions of workers face an undesirable eating arrangement every day. Many go hungry; many get sick, sooner or later. The result is a staggering blow to productivity and health. Poorer nations, in particular, remain in a cycle of poor nutrition, poor health, low productivity, low wages and no development. Presented in this book are mostly positive examples of how governments, employers and trade unions are trying to improve the nutritional status of workers. In wealthier nations, where obesity and related non-communicable diseases – cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney problems – are
epidemic, we find some employers offering healthier menus or better access to healthier foods, such as on-site farmers’ markets. In developing and emerging economies, where hunger and micronutrient deficiencies such as anaemia are epidemic, we find some employers offering free, well-balanced meals or access to safer street foods.
Governments gain from a well-nourished population through reductions in health costs, through tax
revenue from increased work productivity, and – in feeding its children – through the security of future generations of healthy workers. The savings are significant. In Southeast Asia, iron deficiency accounts for a US$5 billion loss in productivity. In wealthier nations, obesity accounts for 2 to 7 per cent of total health costs. In addition to these costs, employers must understand that poor nutrition is tied to absenteeism, sickness, low morale and higher rates of accidents. Obesity, inadequate calories and iron deficiency result in fatigue and
lack of dexterity. Employees must understand that their health and thus job security is dependent upon proper nutrition. The workplace can be an instrument for eating well and is the logical setting for nutrition intervention. First, nutrition is an occupational health and safety concern. Spoiled food can be as deadly to the workforce as a chemical leak; poor nutrition can be as deadly as a weak ladder rung. Second, workers usually come to the workplace regularly for an extended period, making intervention convenient. Larger enterprises regularly have the means to make some improvement at little cost, such as negotiating with food suppliers for safer,
healthier food or providing better shelter to make the meal more restful and enjoyable. Even the smallest enterprises have low-cost options, such as working with local vendors to supply clean water or discount vouchers.”
There are indeed many opportunities to address food at the workplace, while interventions may work as a double-edged sword: better and nutrition for many and increased production for the private sector. The book provides many examples and case stories from which we can derive interventions. It is an opportunity not to be missed, if we want to achieve our goal to become the middle-income country we envision.

Source and recommended reading: “Food at Work” by Christopher Wanjek – an ILO publication
Ton Haverkort